This past week has been Les Miserables week over at The Erratic Muse. As part of the fun, Miss Pickwickian hosted an essay contest, 400-2000 words on any Les Miz topic imaginable. Last night I received an e-mail telling me that I received first place in the contest. Thanks so much for the honor, Miss Pickwickian, and thanks for the chance to participate!
THE ROOT OF THE MATTER:
VICTOR HUGO’S LES MISERABLES
By Rosanne E. Lortz
“Born a citizen of France, died a citizen of humanity…. Champion of the workers, apostle of world civilization and liberty.” So reads one of the many obituaries that followed the death of Victor Hugo, a Frenchman as famous to his countrymen as Queen Victoria was to the English. Victor Hugo established his career as a poet, added to it as a playwright, and used his literary success to invade the world of politics; but for many people his fame rests most securely on the shoulders of his novels. Like many other authors of his time—Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Leo Tolstoy—Hugo used his novels to alert and accuse society about the plight of the poor. “The Wretched Ones” were on the minds and hearts of all the literati of the period, but it was Victor Hugo who turned their suffering into a masterpiece for the ages.
Les Miserables is a novel of well over a thousand pages with almost as many strands woven into its complex web of story. Even a brief summary would be too long for this essay and too short to do the book the justice that Javert would demand. Suffice it to say that the main plot centers around an ex-convict named Jean Valjean who, after being given a second chance by a compassionate old bishop, uses his life to extend that same mercy to an unfortunate prostitute named Fantine, to her innocent daughter Cosette, to an idealistic student named Marius, and even to the inexorable Inspector Javert (a policeman who has spent the entire novel trying to track down Jean Valjean).
Addison Hart, in an excellent article titled “Sentiments Abstractly Christian: Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, and the Catholic Imagination,” identifies three Christian themes in the book: redemption, laying down one’s life, and death and resurrection. These themes can be seen repeatedly as Jean Valjean interacts with the other characters in the novel. He surrenders his comfortable new life to bring comfort to Fantine. He gives himself up to the law in place of Champmathieu, the man whom the court falsely accuses of being him. He redeems Cosette from the abusive Thernardiers and devotes his life to caring for her. He risks his own life to save Marius at the barricade, even though he knows that Marius will take his darling Cosette away from him.
Although the book was not initially well received by ecclesiastical critics (particularly those in the Roman Catholic Church), it has come to be embraced by many Christians as a beautiful narrative portraying the grace of the Gospel. Jean Valjean is seen as the stirring picture of Jesus’ words: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Yet—given the character and personal beliefs of the author—is this ringing Christian endorsement of Les Miserables appropriate? Is it even something that Victor Hugo would have wanted?
Victor Hugo’s religious views underwent several metamorphoses throughout the course of his life. In his youth he identified himself as a Roman Catholic, but he later became embittered toward the institution of the Church because of its perceived indifference to the sufferings of the poor. When interviewed by a census taker in the later years of his life, he claimed to be a “free-thinker.” Addison Hart gives this succinct summary of Hugo’s religious views:
Hugo was not a Christian, and there is reason even to doubt that he was baptized. Religiously, as the foremost French Romantic figure of his age, he was a deist of sorts…. During his fifteen-year exile on Guernsey he developed an interest in the occult…. [H]e frequently made use of theosophical metaphors in his writings. He was a dabbler in heterodoxy, to say the very least.
With Hugo’s antipathy toward orthodox Christianity, it seems peculiar to find the central tenets of that faith exemplified in the pages of Les Miserables.
Mark Brendle, in an essay titled “Morality and Law in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables,” questions whether we really do see Christianity in the novel. The story begins, he says, with Bishop Myriel, “the moral foundation of the entire book.” Myriel’s morality consists of charity, compassion, and courage; he acts out these tenets rather than preaching them and passes them on to Jean Valjean. Brendle goes on to say that:
Myriel is not a typical bishop, or even a typical Christian. He is not meant to represent the average Christian, because Hugo does not believe it is Christianity per se that provides morality. Myriel is drawn in such a way as to show that true morality is above and separate from any specific religion. This mirrors Hugo’s own views on the matter. He is known for having said, “Religions pass away, but God remains.” Thus, in the prologue, Hugo establishes a separation between morality and religion.
If Brendle is correct, then the mercy that Bishop Myriel shows to Jean Valjean—the same mercy that Jean Valjean then extends to others throughout the novel—is a mercy that springs from an “innate” sense of morality within mankind. It is not rooted in Christianity, or in the commandment, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) Hugo intended Jean Valjean to help les miserables of France for the same humanistic reasons that caused Gandhi to devote his life to the oppressed people of India, the same humanistic reasons that prompt Bill and Melinda Gates to donate millions for cancer research.
If we concede the point that Hugo based Les Miserables on the bare principles of morality apart from their Biblical foundations, how then is it appropriate for Christians to laud the work and see their own faith mirrored in it? Apart from the grace of Christ, aren’t the good works of Jean Valjean nothing more than filthy rags? (Isaiah 64:6) The answer to these questions lies in how we perceive meaning in literature. Are the themes and scope of a work of literature confined and restricted by authorial intent? Or can a work of literature take on a life of its own outside of its author’s creative purpose?
Leo Tolstoy, a contemporary of Hugo’s, provides a parallel example in his work The Death of Ivan Ilyich. This novella tells a story that can be interpreted in a Christian light. It is filled with Christian imagery and brings us face to face with that great paradox of our faith: we die that we might live. Ivan’s realization at the end is consonant with the Scriptural truth that Christ, by his death, has removed the sting of death for us. The end of the story can be interpreted as a deathbed conversion, where Ivan finally puts his trust in the One who frees him from the fear of death.
But Tolstoy, like Hugo, was a “dabbler in heterodoxy.” He followed Rousseau in a belief that “the solution of the moral and religious problems that present themselves in this world is found by looking within.” He denied the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and every other Scriptural truth that he was unable to reconcile with his notions of rationality. The gospel that Tolstoy knew was a different gospel than that which we have received. Like Les Miserables, the Russian novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich has a theme of redemption. But if Tolstoy’s perverted doctrine worked itself out into his writings, then is the redemption that Ivan Ilyich discovers a redemption wholly other than that which we discover in Christ?
In assessing the works of non-Christian writers like Hugo and Tolstoy, a Christian can only come to one of two conclusions. He can conclude that because the author intended to convey a humanistic gospel and a man-centered redemption, then the book is radically flawed and at odds with the truth of Scriptures; or he can conclude that some stories are like the monster Frankenstein—they deviate quite radically from the intent of their creator. This deviation is not always for the worse. Books as well as actions can be subject to the irony of Joseph’s comment: “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)
Victor Hugo, when he embedded the themes of redemption, laying down one’s life, and death and resurrection in Les Miserables, may have had a flawed understanding of what these themes really mean. But, fortunately for the reader, Hugo’s personal definitions of “goodness” and “redemption” are superseded, even in his own writings, by the real definitions created by God and demonstrated archetypically in Christ. By structuring his story around the fruits of Christianity (i.e. brotherly love, morality, sacrifice for another), Hugo opened the gate so that the resurrection of Christ could storm the castle. The story of Christ is a greedy thing. If you give it an inch, it will take a mile. It will be lord and master whether we will it to be or not.
Looked at in this way, it is entirely appropriate for Christians to appropriate Les Miserables as a story of Christ’s redemptive power. Victor Hugo looked above ground when he wrote, describing the limbs, leaves, and fruit of the Christian faith. In doing so he refused to acknowledge the root of the matter, but it is still there nonetheless, holding up the tree that Hugo planted and providing nourishment to every leaf of the story.
 Graham Robb, Victor Hugo: A Biography (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 534.
 Addison H. Hart, “Sentiments Abstractly Christian: Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, and the Catholic Imagination,” Touchstone: a Journal of Mere Christianity (May/June, 1998), available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=11-03-018-f (accessed April 2, 2011).
 Wikipedia, “Victor Hugo,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Victor_hugo (accessed April 2, 2011).
 Hart, “Sentiments Abstractly Christian.”
 Mark Brendle, “Morality and Law in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables,” Unabashedly Bookish: the BN Community Blog, http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Unabashedly-Bookish-The-BN/Morality-and-Law-in-Victor-Hugo-s-Les-Miserables/ba-p/535969 (accessed April 2, 2011).
 E. B. Greenwood, “Tolstoy and Religion,” in New Essays on Tolstoy, ed. Malcolm Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 154.